The Fish

Thierry Ramais: On "The Fish"

In what might first look like a rather “romanticized”, almost naive description of a fisherwoman’s passion for her hobby (we probably all have read, indeed, at some point of our childhood, rose-colored tales of hunters/fishermen taking pity on their prey(s)), Elizabeth Bishops tells us in “The Fish”, I believe, a lot not only on man’s relation to nature, but also, in more general terms, on man’s relation to the “other”, the way in which, after vain attempts at objectifying this “other”, the “reality” of the latest, its “humanness”, always comes back in full swing, either to haunt or to charm us.

The poem starts with the epitome of fishing people and their love for tall-tales: “I caught a tremendous fish”. The tone of the I-narrator is that of a woman proud of her victory over nature, her domination over an animal which seems to have managed, so far, to elude all other fishermen. Surprisingly, however, even though the fish is “tremendous” and of “a grunting weight”, it is also said to have offered little resistance: “He didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all.” We do not know if the narrator is trying to convey to her listeners that, whatever the resistance was, it felt like a weak one to her (possibly increasing thereby her own merit as a skilled fisherwoman) or if the fish did indeed offer no resistance but, in all cases, this fish is different from the others (note how the fish is almost instantly referred to as “he” instead of “it”, a process of humanization and masculinization which I will come back to later) and the fisherwoman does express some early signs of admiration for it: it is “venerable and homely” and his picture is imbued with ancient-like respectability (his old age summons in the narrator, I believe, both admiration and fear for the passing of time), its skins hung “like ancient wallpaper” and offers “shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost through roses”.

In these few first lines of the poem, a increasing shift in the narrator’s perspective and focus is noticeable. From the first rather cocky (but empty) comment on how big the fish supposedly is, we are indeed slowly moving into the narrator’s thoughts about the fish, its physical appearance, its shape, patterns and colors. From the narrator’s observations stem mixed feelings and the process that will eventually lead her, by the end of the poem, to admire the beauty of the animal is one interrupted by moments of doubt and even repulsion. There is a strong sense that, after the exultation of the catch, the fisherwoman is now looking at this fish closely for the first time and that her eyes, along with her train of thoughts, somehow get lost in the meanders of its animalistic beauty. Even what could be described as repulsive (its “tiny white sea-lice”, the “rags of green weed” hanging down) is somehow highly aestheticized. There is a strong sense that repulsion, combined with fear (see, for instance, his alluding to the “frightening gills” of the animal, the “dramatic reds and blacks” of its entrails) is a necessary step in the process of looking closely, of admitting the “reality” of the fish, of describing it objectively, demystifying its tall-tale attributes and of eventually admiring it. Repulsion is a very “humane” impulse of protection, but one which, in this poem, does not resist the test of the gaze. The fish indeed gradually becomes an object to be admired in a reverent, almost religious way, and becomes less and less one on which the feeling of “ownership” can hold its grasp. This dissociation between the fisherwoman and her catch, her “object” becomes apparent as she admits that the fish’s gills “can cut so badly”, echoing, I believe, her realization that this fish, despite the appearances, is not one used to give itself up easily.

The narrator’s imaginative description of the animal’s entrails is also, like the earlier description of its outward appearance, one imbued with aestheticism, the animal’s inside are colorful, its flesh is compared to “feathers”. After considering the inside and outside of the animal, the fisherwoman catches a glimpse of its eyes and, after recognizing that these eyes are “far larger than [his]”, shows signs of attempts at establishing some form of “connection” between herself and the animal. Little by little, the fish stops being this “other”, this object of pride that is was at the beginning of the poem, and gradually becomes imbued with human attributes as the description goes on. In the same way as one would try to catch the attention of a stranger in order to befriend him/her, the narrator is hoping to find some response to his stare in the fish’s eyes which “shifted a little, but not to return my stare”, echoing a first failed attempt at truly establishing a connection.

Fascinated by the physical strength of the fish (let us notice, for instance, the narrator’s pointing to the fish’s “lower lip – if you could call it a lip”, echoing again her tendency to humanize the animal), the fisherman becomes aware of the various “fights” it has endured. There is a strong sense of the focus of the poem (and of the narrator’s thoughts) shifting from pride to admiration; the fisherwoman might be good in what she does, but the fish itself has obviously been victor in many fights, too. By the end of the poem, the “victory fill[ing] up the little rented boat” stops being a simple matter of boasting about a good catch, it’s the victory of both the fisherwoman and the fish itself. The animal stops being a mere trophy, it is imbued with human qualities which the fisherwoman can identify with. As a result, the latest feels she cannot do anything but let it go. The poem obviously celebrates a moment in person’s life when his/her humanness goes as far as to recognize the humanity of nature itself, to consider nature not as “object” but as equally “subject”. From the triumph of the catch to close observation, repulsion and eventually admiration, the ending tone of the poem then becomes one of near-euphoria, as the narrator exclaims how, on the boat, “everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” The feeling of admiration of and reconciliation with nature has become so strong that everything around the narrator indeed becomes nature and that, after having recognized the humanness in nature, the fisherwoman know recognizes her belonging to nature inside her own humanness. In the same way as, as David Kalstone puts it, the narrator has “summon[ed] up” the animal from his “own inner depth”, she has also “summon[ed] up” those feelings of reconciliation from deep inside herself.

Copyright © 2004 by Thierry Ramais.

Robert Dale Parker: On "The Fish"

Perhaps many readers would take "The Fish," one of Bishop's most admired poems, as her most conclusively confident poem. There she catches a "tremendous fish" and surveys it closely in one of the finest of those precise descriptions she is famous for. Then, she says, "I stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little rented boat," "until," in the poem's final words, "everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go." Here suddenly she catches what she wished for, and so no longer needs to wish. To preserve the edge of wish, then, she must give up what she has, so she can have again more truly by not having. It recalls Faulkner's claim that Hemingway failed by sticking to what he already knew he could succeed at, instead of daring the failures that, by overreaching, make the truest success. On the other hand, Bishop does not sound convinced that she really gains that much by catching her fish. For her cheerily sentimental word "rainbow," with its repetition that, rather than giving emphasis, only enhances the sense that she feels the word's inadequacy, together with the sudden exclamation point and its redoubled effect of straining too hard at the end of what had remained an understated, calm poem, all seem to compensate for some fear of ordinariness in her understatement and quiet. Her letting the fish go, dramatized by putting it all in the final words, seems too willfully a striving for conclusive wisdom. She can throw the fish back, if she likes, but to gloat over throwing it back sounds too easily superior, since most of us, rather than throwing fish back, enjoy eating them now and then. Instead of ending with a wish for something to say, she seems not to know how to end, and so she goes, in effect, fishing for profundity, violating at the end the modesty and indirection that she was to win such admiration for. 

From The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana (University of Illinois Press, 1988). Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Stephen Cushman: On "The Fish"

[T]he familiar poem "The Fish" can be reread profitably as a configuration of simple parallels and more complex subordinations, culminating in the paratactic connection reminiscent of biblical syntax: "And I let the fish go." The careful avoidance of subordination, as in "so I let the fish go," reveals the speaker’s reluctance, even refusal, to impose a more obvious moral closure on her narrative. Instead, Bishop reserves subordination for the shift from the speaker’s simple narration of her fish story to an imaginative identification with the fish she catches. Through the first 21 lines the only conjunction is ‘and" and several statements are linked without conjunctions at all. Then, as the first-person speaker shifts from "I caught" to "I thought," comes hypotaxis:

While his gills were breathing in the terrible oxygen -- the frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood, that can cut so badly – I thought of the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers.

In this poem, with its paratactic skeleton of "I caught," "I thought," "I looked," "I admired," "I stared and stared," "And I let the fish go," hypotaxis signals the journey to the interior, as the mere recounting of events yields to personal reflection on, and appreciation of, those events. As in "the Map," in which hypotaxis accompanies the printer’s excitement "as when emotion too far exceeds its cause," parataxis in "the Fish" governs emotion, whereas hypotaxis releases it, even in the vision of a "pool of bilge / where oil had spread rainbow."

From Stephen Cushman, "Elizabeth Bishop’s Winding Path," Chapter 5 in Fictions of Form in American Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 131.

C.K.Doreski: On "The Fish"

"The Fish" [NS], Bishop's most frequently anthologized poem, relies upon a Wordsworthian spiritual exercise to justify a rowboat transformation from plunderer to benefactor. The collapse of distinctions between land and sea, the air and earth of the speaker, obscures the borders between life and art. Bishop perceives the fish in land-language of "feathers" and "peonies" and "tinfoil" and "isinglass." Even as she works those changes, however, the fish works reciprocal wonders of its own. Passive resistance deprives the fishing poet of her triumph: "He didn't fight. / He hadn't fought at all." She soon understands that her knowledge of the fish is inaccurate.

Evidence of past encounters—"two heavier lines, / and a fine black thread / still crimped from the strain and snap / when it broke and he got away"—tells of a different fish. Earlier seen as "battered and venerable / and homely" (the line-break softening the accuracy of description), the fish now assumes the mock-role of tribal elder and hero:

Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering, a five-haired beard of wisdom trailing from his aching jaw.

Deprived of the fight, the poet must contemplate her position as the harbinger of death. The "little rented boat" marks a closed world wherein the speaker represents the moral force of her species. Taken by the incongruity and insignificance of the colloquy, the reader is swept from the sensuous into the psychological, then moved beyond earthly particulars to a spiritual whole:

[lines 65-76]

As in the Christian parable, the oil upon the waters brings peace. It also engenders communication with the otherworldly. Through a rare Wordsworthian "spot of time," a genuine epiphany, the poet admits, somewhat reluctantly, a momentary conventional wisdom. This leap from perception to wisdom signals the arbitrariness so characteristic of the epiphany.

Though "The Fish" is certainly central to her canon, Bishop's boredom and dissatisfaction with the poem suggests a fear that the poem settles into sentiment instead of expanding into true wisdom.

From Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

Bonnie Costello: On "The Fish"

[By the midpoint of the poem] [t]he poet does not simply relinquish her desire for imaginative contact with the fish. But her attention shifts from spatial to historical imagining. History is no longer distant and figurative but "still attached" in the form of "five old pieces of fish-line, / or four and a wire leader / … with all five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth." Five wounds on a fish make him a Christ figure, but the epiphany he brings the poet has nothing otherwordly about it. The domestic images at the beginning of the poem, followed by the battered body of the fish, evoke the poet’s unconscious life, the uncanny return of the repressed which can "cut so badly." But Bishop can entertain such self-reflection now within the larger context of the life of nature and the beholder’s tentative grasp of it. She no longer has to define a discrete interior space through dream or symbolic abstraction in order to explore her subjectivity; she has brought the self out of nocturnal seclusion and explored its relation to everything under the sun.

There is also a pervasive but ambiguous sexual quality to the fish. An untamable, corporeal energy violates the domestic world of wallpaper and roses. The fish, a he, hangs like a giant phallus, yet as the beholder imagines his interior, its "pink swim-bladder / like a big peony,? He takes on a female aspect. Indeed, the hooks in his mouth suggest that phallic aggression is the fisherman’s (woman this time) part. This hermaphroditic fish challenges the conventional hierarchical antithesis of female nature and male culture. Here there is no struggle, and the victory is not exclusive.

For Bishop, nature mastered as static knowledge is a fish out of water. Its beauty and venerability belong to time. Yet it can be entertained, with a certain humility and lightness (such as simile registers), for its figurative possibilities. The poet "stared and stared" even though the fish did not return her stare. Her imagination transforms a "pool of bilge / where oil had spread a rainbow" into an ecstatic (and perhaps deliberately excessive) "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" Such an epiphany, set as iut is in the highly ephemeral space of the rented boat with its rusted engine, must be of mortality. The grotesque is the style of mortality not because it makes us turn away in horror but because it challenges the rigid frames of thought and perception through which we attempt to master life. All the conceptual and emotional contradictions that emerge within the description of the fish point to the letting go.


from Bonnie Costello, "Attractive Mortality," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 63-64.

Ronald E. McFarland: On "The Fish"

Readers of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" commonly pose objections which concern opposite ends of the critical spectrum. One objection is to the integrity of Bishop's fish: it does not seem realistic; it is too ugly; what kind of fish is it supposed to be anyway? Another objection is to the conceptual limitations of the poem: the imagery is admirable, but that is not enough (certainly not enough to be worth spending extensive time on); after close examination of ugly old fish, fisherman releases it - so what?

The first objection, which Richard Moore touches upon en passant in an essay published twenty-five years ago, is the easiest to deal with. Noticing the lack of fight in the huge fish, Moore flirts with the notion that must occur to many sophisticated readers of poetry upon encountering this poem: "perhaps the fish seems so realistic and factual because it is not a 'real' fish at all. Moore adds, parenthetically, that "indeed, the reader never learns what species of fish it is." Of course some will immediately argue that the species of fish, whether identifiable or not, is irrelevant to the meaning of the poem; but it seems to me that considering Elizabeth Bishop's close associations with the sea (she had moved to Key West in 1938 after a childhood spent in a fishing village in Nova Scotia and in Boston), the fish might be supposed to be representative of an actual species.

At any rate, as a quondam Florida fisherman I have always supposed that Bishop's fish emerged from the salt waters of actual experience (the poem first appeared in Partisan Review in 1940, while she was living in Key West, and Bishop did enjoy fishing) and that it must be some sort of grouper. The Fisherman's Field Guide describes grouper as "broad-headed, thick-bodied, bottom- or reef-dwelling, predatory sea basses with very large mouths, protruding lower jaws, caniniform teeth, and scales that typically extend onto the bases of some or all fins." The fact that the grouper is a bottom feeder would likely account for the "rags of green weed" which cling to Bishop's fish (I. 21), and the hook-pierced "lower lip" (I. 48) is appropriately prominent. More specifically, the fish's coloration suggests that it is a large red grouper (Epinephelus morio), a type common to Florida and Caribbean waters. Weighing up to forty pounds, the red grouper is described as having a "squarish tail and a brownish-red or rusty head and body, darkly barred and marbled. Often, it has scattered white spots." Did Elizabeth Bishop mistake these spots for "tiny white sea-lice"(I. 19)? At that point, I think, the literal description of the fish interferes with the fish as the poet re-creates it. She wants the sea-lice in order to emphasize the ambiguous image created by the fish, which is simultaneously ugly and beautiful, a point to which we will return herafter.

Rube Allyn's Dictionary of Fishes, an angler's guide, adds some information about the grouper which is pertinent to the fifth and sixth lines of the poem, about which most commentators have something to say (more, perhaps, than is necessary). "In the traditional battle between man and fish," Nancy L. McNally writes, "the old and decrepit fish ... has simply refused to participate." Moore insists that the lines reinforce the size of the fish "by explaining how so huge a thing could be caught" and that they also "make the fish more interesting and mysterious." In his anglers' dictionary Allyn observes of the red grouper that they offer little resistance when hooked and are not considered a 'gamey' fish." Of its big brother (the largest on record weighs 735 pounds), commonly called the "jewfish," a modification of "jaw" similar to that in "jew's-harp," Allyn writes, "They immediately sulk when hooked and use all their energy in pulling straight down."

One other observation about the grouper is worthy of note: "They have bladders that are adjusted to depths they inhabit and when hauled in these bladders often expand and burst." Did Bishop know of this when she drew attention to "the pink swim-bladder/like a big peony"(II. 32-33)? If so, those lines, and indeed the whole poem, acquire a special significance - the marriage of beauty and death. This, like the blending of the beautiful with the ugly, is implicit at various times in the poem. Death is at the edges of Bishop's poem if only because the speaker has the power of life and death over the fish. Her portrait of the entrails, after all, is probably based upon actual fish-cleaning experience. (I am assuming a female persona in the poem, though nothing in the poem demands it. As a rule I think the speaker's sex should be identified with that of the poet, unless there are grounds to think otherwise.) As Wallace Stevens wrote in a quite different context, "Death is the mother of beauty." I take it that Stevens's provocative phrase means that beauty is definable at least partly in terms of its evanescence. Such beauty as Bishop's fish possesses is certainly waning.


From "Some Observations on Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’" Arizona Quarterly 38:4 (Winter 1982)